B2B storytelling: How to make your content stand out

Everyone in marketing knows the value of a good story…don’t they?

Historically, the answer for B2B marketing has been ‘no’. But that’s changing, as these great examples of B2B storytelling show.

“How do they do that?” I hear you ask. The article points to some of the relevant factors: LinkedIn has a clearly defined niche and promotes its value relentlessly; Salesforce uses case studies really well; Cisco uses humour. All good weapons in your storytelling arsenal.

All very specific, though. What if humour isn’t appropriate — or you’re just not very good at it? What if you’ve got multiple propositions that all need equal airtime?

What struck us about the examples given wasn’t so much the specifics of what they’ve done well, but the more general principles that we think they exemplify.

When we try to bring storytelling to B2B marketing, these are some of the key things we’re usually aiming to do.

1. Make your audience invest with emotion
Connecting with emotion in B2B marketing is perhaps not as easy as in B2C, but it’s always something to aim for.

The Cisco example shows that humour is one way to do it, if you’ve got the chops. Fear can have its place, too, though too much negativity can have the wrong result (you want to use the carrot as well as the stick.)

Whatever emotion you use, use it with caution; you don’t want people remembering only the emotion, but rather the message you’re using the emotion to convey. This is why one of the most powerful ways to connect with people’s emotions is to tap into the stories of your customers.

As the article points out, for Kickstarter this is very much part of their business (their users tell their own stories), but Salesforce proves that you don’t have to be selling stories to master the art of bringing customer stories to life.

2. Gain trust through authenticity
As we’ve pointed out before, businesses today need to show that they’re open and honest; human rather than a faceless corporation.

But you can’t simply sound authentic, you actually have to be authentic Which means that, like LinkedIn, you really need to take the time to think about developing your value proposition from the customer’s point of view (and if you have many products, services or audiences, you may need to do this for all of them).

Another effective approach is what Salesforce does with its customer community. They’ve developed a space for customers to discuss their experience (positive or negative) without any influence from the company itself.

No selling. No corporate spin. You can trust that everything on there is 100% genuine. People respond to that.

3. Be memorable
The Zendesk Alternative. Need I say more?

Unfortunately there’s no formula for the kind of creative, outside the box thinking that will make you really stand out from the rest. Nor will time and budget always make room for it.

But there are other ways to be memorable. If, for example, you can avoid an over-zealous corporate legal team diluting every bit of your content with ‘maybe’s and ‘might’s, you can be memorable for having and expressing opinions.

B2B marketing is historically very cautious, and we’re not suggesting that you make wild claims that can’t be backed up. But there’s really very little danger in being a little unexpected, a little controversial now and then. If you have something interesting to say, say it!

Let’s move B2B marketing forward
This blog was inspired by an article pointing to a few great examples of B2B marketing. But that kind of article is much harder to come by than we’d like.

Read any article outlining great examples of content marketing (here’s one from the Content Marketing Institute) and you’ll be lucky to find B2B examples referenced.

It’s up to all of us to change that by daring to be more emotive, authentic and memorable with our marketing. Let’s go!

The resurgence of storytelling as a means of persuasion

We love a good story here at HN — whether it’s a novel you can’t put down, a TV drama that’s so gripping you won’t be watching it on catch-up, or the latest Hollywood blockbuster. This is the power of storytelling — it draws you in and makes you hunger for more.

Of course, storytelling isn’t a new idea when it comes to being persuasive. Ancient Greeks, notably Aristotle, understood the role of pathos and ethos — the modes of persuasion appealing to an audience’s emotions and their perception of the speaker’s moral character — in establishing a connection with the audience. More recently, it’s been proven that long copy — when it’s written to influence the cognitive and affective attitudes of an audience — can outsell short copy. That’s despite the trend to distil information into bite-sized nuggets to suit the time-poor society we live in.

We’re not arguing against brevity but in the pursuit of ‘concise’. The bombardment of messages, one fact after another, can sometimes be relentless and tiring for the reader — it takes the pleasure out of reading when it should be a welcome diversion. A swing towards a more engaging approach, where the reader derives enjoyment from reading your material, has to be the answer.

So whether you’re looking to create online or printed copy, the approach remains the same: engaging and thought-provoking copy that involves the reader — whether presented in a hundred words or a thousand — will be far more successful than reams of facts and figures.

There are many ways to make your B2B message more engaging — we’re certainly passionate about video and animations here. But the biggest change we are seeing at the moment is a return to good old-fashioned storytelling, meaning that case studies are taking a far more human angle to draw the reader in and show the personal gain as much as the business benefits. This is great to see, not least because it’s a proven way of creating an environment to sell in but also because it’s just as much fun to write as it is to read.

Have you used storytelling to your advantage? Or were you persuaded by a great story? Why not tell us about it on Twitter, LinkedIn or in the comments section below?

Emotive storytelling — what can we learn from John Lewis?

It’s that time of year when talk in the office turns to the perennial subjects of the weather — will it ever get better? We doubt it; Downton Abbey — will Lady Mary manage a smile this series? Definitely not; and the John Lewis Christmas ad — how will they ever top last year’s? We have no idea but we’re certain they will.

But it’s not just their Christmas ads that are sprinkled with the kind of magic that has even our most restrained colleagues dabbing at their eyes. Take this summer’s advert for… wait for it… home insurance.

Normally, insurance adverts have me searching for the TV remote to change channels — and not just because it’s such a dry subject. Insurance adverts seem invariably to speak to all the things that can go wrong in the home, which (as I’m sure parents will agree) isn’t something I enjoy being reminded about.

The Tiny Dancer ad pretty much dispenses with all of that, and instead paints a picture. And just like the Christmas ads, it has all the elements required to provoke an emotional response: a heartfelt tune to whisk us back to our childhoods, cute kids, an aspirational lifestyle and just a hint of sadness or — because this is insurance — mild peril. You can find out more about the thinking behind the ad with this behind-the-scenes video.

So what does this have to do with engaging our B2B customers? Well, the principles are pretty much the same. You may not want to use endearing children, fluffy animals or Elton John to hook your audience in, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a human angle to help your audience relate to what you do and increase their emotional attachment to the brand. The great thing about this kind of emotive storytelling is that you can let your imagination run riot — think of all the things that your products and services make possible around the world, and somewhere in there you’re almost certain to find a story that touches your heart.

You could even take a surrealist look at your services, like Sungard’s How to Move to the Cloud/Survive a Zombie Attack infographic did. Like John Lewis’ ad, it touches on a very human story (the fear around moving to the cloud) and smoothly connects that with a story that its audience will likely be familiar with — and although a zombie attack is extremely unlikely, the mild peril (again) that courses through both stories compels the reader to act in a way that a dry brochure could never achieve.

Another great example is Xerox’s Chief Optimist campaign where they got together with Forbes magazine to offer a magazine packed with customer stories. This is not just one story but a series, interwoven with tips from Xerox executives. It was extremely successful, achieving an interaction rate of 70% and achieving more than $1 billion in sales.

If you feel inspired to get writing, you may want to have a look at a story we once told about storytelling, or this how-to blog post about the Hero’s Journey. Or why not let us know what you think makes a great story by commenting below, tweeting us or posting on our LinkedIn page?

Selling through storytelling: a parable by HN Marketing

At HN, we’re passionate about telling stories when we write. We know from experience that stories resonate with an audience, and using them wisely can greatly boost the success of your marketing campaign or sales pitch. What better way to illustrate that than to tell you a story? So – are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…

Geoff sat down in the conference hall, still hungry after the pitiful sandwiches that were a staple at these sorts of events. Prospects for the afternoon weren’t good; two hours on some new software that the CEO thought would really help him improve the running of the IT department. Between that and the sandwiches with their unidentifiable filling, he was certain he would be asleep in ten minutes.

The lights dimmed, a projector whirred to life, but instead of the usual presentation, with lists of USPs and dreary bar charts, Geoff found himself watching a short film about one of the company’s customers. They’d faced problems similar to the ones he faced back in the office, from connectivity issues right down to always having to stay late to run maintenance on the company’s machines. He found that he related to the customer in the story, and when the company’s software was brought in to solve the problems, Geoff saw exactly how it could help him out too.

After the video, there was a Q-and-A session, during which the presenter continued referencing the story; and even got a laugh or two for his joke about the tie and the staple gun. Geoff found himself thinking of how much easier the software would make his job – he might leave the office on time some evenings! – and he resolved to call the company the next morning to discuss his situation.

On his way out of the conference, Geoff was given a leaflet which continued to talk about the software through the characters from the film, and though Geoff was privately dubious that anybody smiled that much, or with teeth that white, he found on the drive back to the office that he was already thinking about what he’d have to do to get the software installed on his company’s network. He was, he had to admit, totally sold on the product.

Of course, case studies are not the only form of storytelling with value in marketing. Keep your eyes peeled for more blogs on storytelling in the coming weeks, as we explore how you can use this technique to boost the effectiveness of your marketing materials.

Additionally, we are re-telling this story as an cartoon, to see the difference between a story told in words and one told in pictures.

Imitation — the sincerest form of consistency?

When Sebastian Faulks was asked to write a James Bond novel to mark the 100th anniversary of Ian Fleming’s birth, he was lucky enough to have a copy of Fleming’s article How to Write a Thriller to hand. This helped Faulks follow Fleming’s journalistic style of writing, and even copy his routine of producing 2,000 words a day.

But a Bond novel is a Bond novel — even if Devil May Care tackled a new theme (drugs) and was set in a location never used by Fleming (Persia, now Iran). With her novel Death Comes to Pemberley, on the other hand, PD James set herself a very different challenge: to write a murder mystery — a type of novel that doesn’t feature in Jane Austen’s oeuvre — that would read like a natural sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

As a lifelong Austen fan, James had many rereadings of Austen’s work to guide her. In her novel, she successfully recreates the world of Pride and Prejudice, reflecting Austen’s narrative style and the original book’s themes of manners, morality, marriage, class and self-knowledge.

Using a consistent style, or tone of voice, and staying ‘on message’ — as both modern-day authors have done — was critical to maintaining the ‘brand image’ of the authors they imitated and to keeping faith with the original authors’ readership.

Staying on brand and on message in all your sales and marketing communications is just as critical to maintaining your organisation’s brand image with your audience — especially if you’re producing a new type of collateral. An up-to-date set of editorial, branding and messaging guidelines will go a long way towards helping you achieve that objective, by supporting the creation of consistently styled and themed content of all types across all your communication channels.

What do you think? How do you ensure your new content stays consistent with what you’ve produced before? Let us know in the comments section, or get in touch on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Content marketing: the Jedi Master approach

It’s time you told a Star Wars story. And by that, I mean you need to take your prospects along a content marketing version of the mythic hero’s journey:

  • The prospect starts off in the ordinary world
  • The call to adventure is an unsolved problem or unfulfilled desire
  • There’s resistance to solving that problem, until…
  • A mentor (your content) appears to help them proceed with the journey

Your prospect is Luke. You are Obi Wan

When you put your prospect in the position of the main hero (Luke Skywalker), and your content as the mentor who guides or assists the hero on their journey of transformation (Obi Wan), it’s extremely powerful. You allow people to identify themselves within the context of an enduring mythical structure that also makes a hero out of your brand.

Some of the most effective advertising campaigns have tapped into the power of the monomyth that Star Wars adopted, thanks to Joseph Campbell.

While content marketing doesn’t require multi-millions in production costs, it’s helpful to see examples of how the hero’s journey has been used in the past to grow revenue. My favourite is….

Apple’s “Here’s to the Crazy Ones”

Apple has done a phenomenal job of storytelling throughout the years. Their Think Different television ad (the “Crazy Ones” commercial) is one of their best. It says nothing about selling computers, or even computers themselves. But what is does do is connect with a potential Apple user, by comparing them to the great geniuses of modern history.

The call to adventure to change the world is front and center, amplified by a powerful sense of identification with cultural icons such as Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., plus business leaders like Richard Branson and Ted Turner. It highlights the feelings that many people feel; the same feelings that these widely successful figures felt.

It leaves you feeling inspired, understood, and more connected to Apple computers.

Content marketing storytelling: the hero’s journey

Everybody loves a hero! Think of any of your favourite stories and you’ll realise that there’s a hero in it that you identify with. Or, look at Britain’s love affair with football: the strong association with a team of ‘heroes’ and the chance to be part of their journey to victory creates an emotional connection and loyalty that can last a lifetime.

This is the connection that we, as marketers, actively pursue by creating a brand story based on ‘the hero’s journey’.

The hero’s journey story structure has been around for a long as stories have been told.

The basic formula is:

  • the hero embarks on a journey
  • the hero encounters and deals with obstacles
  • the hero is changed

We all hope that the hero wins at the end, and in brand stories, we want our product or service to be part of a positive change as the hero wins the day.

Who should be the hero of the story?

In a hero brand story, our hero can either be the customer or the brand. If the customer is positioned as the hero, the product or service is the helper—the sidekick or the mentor (the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the story)—that makes victory possible. If the brand is the hero, the product or service arrives and saves the day for the customer—who, at the end, identifies with, is inspired by or is influenced by the hero.

Who’s the hero in your stories? Let us know with a comment…

Make your content better by following the hero’s journey

Whether you decide to have the customer win by choosing your brand and becoming the hero, or you ride in and save the day, to take advantage of this connection with your customers, all you have to do is identify the number one obstacle your product or service helps your customer overcome.

Take that information and plug it into the simple formula of journey, obstacle, change, victory. Your brand story will position you in the customer’s hero journey, resulting in an emotional connection, potential conversion, and loyalty.

The persuaders

Have you noticed how you find certain people convincing without feeling sold to? How you find yourself nodding and weighing their view and finding yourself in agreement with hardly any effort at all? The art of persuasion isn’t such a mystery with even the ancient Greeks proffering a theory or two.

Here are a few points to hold in mind:

  • Speak like one of us. If you look like one of us and sound like one of us we’re very likely to treat you like one of us. It’s how you get a pass into the community you want to influence.
  • Believe in what you say. If you’re not convinced your words will give you away. Make sure you’ve convinced yourself first before trying to brief a writer.
  • Tell a story. A story helps bring an idea to life and put it into context for your reader, making the abstract tangible.

And, although this one is not quite as strong…

  • Remember reading is listening. Even when it’s in print tone matters. Whose voice can you hear in your head while you are reading? Does it speak with the brand’s personality?

What is copywriting?

A definition that I have liked for a while now and endorsed by Roger Horberry in his interesting book ‘Brilliant Copywriting’ is that it is salesmanship in print. This is a quote from the illustrious adman John E Kennedy. We’ve long chattered on about words that sell, but what about those that persuade and incite action. Roger is right (or is it just that I agree with him?); ‘selling’ is only half the task of the copywriter. If you take the construction of a rational logical argument based on a tangible financial attributes to its extreme you end up with copy that’s cold and pretty unconvincing. People rarely buy for wholly rational reasons and charm, humour and good ol’ entertainment all have a part to play in persuading our audience to act.

Is that a drum roll I hear? Enter the copywriter: professional persuader and story teller extraordinaire.

Customer reference programmes and reputation management

Customer reference programmes have been a recurring theme at the start of 2011 for HN. Of course, case studies and testimonials have always been a valued marketing asset and so it shouldn’t be surprising that they come under scrutiny from time to time. Do we have the right stories? Are we getting the best value from them? However, for some time now, the role of customer references has been changing; perhaps that’s the case in your organisation, too.

Once the mainstay of reinforcing a company’s credentials and acting as a proof of capability, customer references have moved into the front line and are being used to engage with prospects and build reputation—often well in advance of any sales visit. As a consequence, the traditional format of the case study, structured along the lines of problem, solution, results, is woefully inadequate.

What makes a good customer reference?

Modern case studies need to tell a story and engage on an emotional as well as on a logical business level. They must provide a plot and well-rounded, believable characters to draw the reader or viewer in. The formulaic writing styles and reporting of the past just won’t cut it. The story must be told from the customer’s view point with the vendor’s angle getting second billing. This can make some of our clients feel uncomfortable—until they start to get some feedback from sales and new customers about just how influential this new style of customer reference has been, that is.

How customer references support the buying process

IT decision-makers are better informed than ever and reputedly a sceptical bunch. They still value the opinion of their peers greatly and reference stories are a great way to capture this opinion. Customer references can act as powerful door-openers, but only if the content has been developed from the off to do this job.

This rule applies to every piece of content, actually, and it’s fundamental to consider where and how the communication will support the buying process so that the structure and information imparted align with the decision-making stages.

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